Hebridean Island Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines

Now that we’ve been on a Regent cruise… are we converts?

I have long maintained that when it comes to cruises, I am strictly a “small ship” person. I like to be able to get around the ship easily, and get outside to get the best photos. I like really good food, personalized service, and all inclusive pricing. I don’t care much about ship based Broadway shows, shopping on board, lots of restaurants, casinos, coffee bars, waterslides, or marble bathrooms.

I do appreciate spas, hot tubs, and pool areas, but they aren’t a must for me. I like having the chance to meet new people, but that’s also not an absolute must. I mainly just want to get through the week without constantly running into people who are annoying, or annoying other people myself.

I resisted trying Regent Seven Seas Cruises for a long time, because I figured the ship would be too big for me. I also read some reviews of their older ships that made me think they would disappoint me. Even though Splendor is a very new ship (for me, it’s extremely new), I was still kind of skeptical that I’d love it.

And… well… to be honest, while I had a great time on Splendor, I didn’t fall in love with it. I wasn’t wowed by the experience the way I was when I got off my first SeaDream or Hebridean cruises. Some of that may be because now I’ve done a few luxury cruises. It no longer blows me away to be able to order a cocktail on a ship and not have to worry about what it costs or what the tip should be. I’m older, and maybe I’m a little jaded. It’s been awhile since we were last “broke”. ūüėČ (knock on wood)

Maybe I’d be a confirmed Regent “cheerleader” if our most recent cruise was my first luxury experience. But it wasn’t, and there were some things I didn’t like about Regent. I think the main thing I noticed was that it wasn’t a very personal experience. Almost none of the crew knew our names or preferences. While that’s not a big deal to someone like me, it also doesn’t fit my definition of what a luxury experience is. One of the quickest ways to impress me is to call me by my preferred name… and not my legal first name! Call me Jennifer, and you’ll definitely annoy me. No one who actually knows me, calls me that.

Another thing I noticed was that the wait staff had some lapses in table maintenance. They were pretty good about replacing silverware and removing dishes in a timely manner, but they often neglected to pick up things like used sugar packages or other trash. Only one or two servers used a table crumber after the main course. Granted, table crumbing is a little thing, but I think if a line wants to bill itself as “luxurious”, that’s a necessary part of service. Especially when there are obvious crumbs that need to be swept up.

Regent had a lot of buffets. I don’t mind buffets, and what they offered was fine. In some cases, it was a real treat. I don’t get to enjoy a lot of fresh shrimp cocktail or prime rib these days, for instance. Regent’s buffets didn’t have a lot of lines, which is a good thing. However, table service, really, is more luxurious to me than going to a buffet. SeaDream and Hebridean both have the occasional buffet, but they are much less pervasive. Hebridean has a cold seafood buffet that is positively decadent and put Regent to shame. But then… the ships are much smaller!

I think, what Regent offers is a very comfortable ship. There aren’t huge crowds, and most everything is taken care of in some way. That’s a good thing, and I think their product is excellent quality. I would not balk at cruising with them again in the future, especially for the right price and itinerary. I probably wouldn’t book Regent for a common itinerary that I could find on a smaller ship. I never see my usual lines going to the Baltic Sea, so that’s why we tried Regent. It worked out great for that purpose. Moreover, I can’t deny that our superior suite on Regent was fabulous. It was the most comfortable room we’ve ever had at sea, and it wasn’t even their top category.

This couple was on our cruise, and they had a much fancier suite than we did!

I also think that I probably prefer land based trips to cruises. I usually only choose cruising if I want to cover a large area in a short time, or there’s limited or difficult accessibility by land means (say visits to islands). Sometimes, cruises simply work best for certain itineraries. Our last trip, for instance, was in an expensive area where there’s a lot of water and not too many land based options for travel. Cruising is good for the Baltic and Nordic countries, especially if you don’t have an electric car! But, given a choice, I’d generally rather arrange a road trip and stay in a really lovely hotel or self-catering place.

We didn’t cruise in Norway (where some people are actually discouraging cruising), but I noticed that most of the cars there are electric. Gas is expensive! Actually, just about everything in Norway is expensive, save for things like education and healthcare! I would have loved to have traveled by land, though, so I could see more of the country and explore its hospitality from locals. Ditto to Sweden and Finland, although we have driven in Sweden and Denmark. I am especially interested in doing some land travel in places like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. I’m hoping that when the new Baltic train is completed, we can try it out.

I don’t know if or when we’ll cruise again. I suspect we will. I’m still dying to try a French Barge cruise, and I’ve seen some smaller lines that I think we’ll like, like The Majestic Line in Scotland. I’m also curious about certain unique ships like Sea Cloud, and Europa and Europa II, even though they aren’t all inclusive. I still love SeaDream for its friendly and service oriented staff and amenities, although I don’t think I enjoy the clientele as much. Of the lines we’ve tried so far, Hebridean has my favorite mix of crew and fellow passengers, but doesn’t go to as many places as other lines do.

Anyway… I do like Regent, and although I did say I wasn’t sure if I’d cruise again, the truth is, I probably will do another cruise with them someday. But I definitely haven’t joined the Regent Seven Seas “cult”. ūüėÄ Some people get personally offended when people have anything negative to say about their favorite cruise lines! They all have their drawbacks, though, and it’s not a bad thing to point out a cruise line’s plusses and minuses. After all, these trips are expensive! Most people don’t want to gamble with $10,000, especially if they aren’t wealthy!

No line is perfect, but some lines suit certain people better than others do. I’m just glad there are so many choices to be made, and fascinating places to see. And I’m grateful to have the freedom and be in a position in which we can do these trips and enjoy them to the fullest. It’s a privilege to experience these travel adventures and get to write about them candidly. I could certainly be doing worse things with my time!

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Champagne Bucket trips, trip planning

In case you needed a reminder… Scandinavia is EXPENSIVE.

The featured photo was taken on a day cruise we took in Oslo, Norway, back in 2009.

It’s not so often that I travel blog during the work week. We have the pandemic to thank for that, as it made taking normal trips a lot more difficult for the past couple of years. In 2023, things are pretty much back in full swing. I expect Europe will be, once again, teeming with people this summer. In fact, I expect there will be more people than ever.

A week ago, we did a champagne bucket draw, and Finland won. That meant planning a trip that included a stop in Finland. I marvel at the changes our plans have undergone within about ten days. We went from planning a Helsinki based trip that would include land based stops in the Baltic countries, to pulling the trigger on a luxury cruise, with a week in Norway beforehand.

When you see the words “luxury cruise” in my blog post, of course it goes without saying that this trip is going to be pricey. We are going to sail on Regent Seven Seas‚Äô newest completed ship, Splendor, in June. An even newer ship, Grandeur, will be sailing this year, but I don’t think she’s had her maiden voyage yet. So, as of this writing, Splendor, which was built in 2020, is Regent’s newest. This will also be the newest ship we’ve ever sailed on, as we usually opt for either SeaDream or Hebridean Island Cruises, both of which offer luxury on much smaller and older vessels.

One of many Regent Splendor cruise ship tour videos on YouTube.

I chose this particular cruise on Regent mostly because of the itinerary, which includes a stop in Helsinki, as well as most of the Baltic locations we wanted to visit, along with a couple of other stops. It’s not our first Baltic cruise, though.

Our very first cruise was on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, back in 2009, and that was also a Baltic cruise. It was only four nights, and included stops in Tallin, Estonia and Copenhagen, Denmark, with embarkation in Oslo, Norway, and debarkation in Stockholm, Sweden. On that trip, we spent a couple of nights in Oslo, which we both really enjoyed. The cruise was loaded with Norwegians, and we found that we really enjoyed their joie de vivre. ūüėČ Later, we encountered a friendly bunch of them on our second SeaDream cruise and vowed we’d visit Norway again. So that’s why we’re doing a week in Norway, too… and staying longer, so we can see more of Norway than just the city of Oslo. Below are a few photos from our cruise from Norway to Sweden in 2009… As you can see, I need to take more photos of beautiful Norway, at the very least! That was before I had an iPhone.

When I saw Regent’s June 23 Stockholm to Copenhagen cruise, I knew it was a no brainer to book it, because I was finding it very difficult to plan a land based trip including Finland and the Baltics… And yes, before anyone comes at me, I know there’s a large body of water we’d have to cross to get to the Baltics. I was planning a few days in Finland, then a ferry ride to Tallin, where I naively thought we could arrange train travel or maybe rent a car or something… At this writing, a train route is being constructed to make that vision come to fruition in the future. As of now, though, it’s just not convenient. ūüėČ I also realized Bill wouldn’t want to be driving so much, and I wouldn’t want to be flying so much.

The cruise solution was simply more practical, and it was available during the time we wanted to travel. And– we had the money to pay for it, thanks to a big tax refund. Even better was the fact that the sailing I found was on sale… which was a damned good thing. In fact, I should have waited another week, because the price went down again, and it was quite a significant drop! Some people would probably tell me to cancel and rebook, but I’ve already had lots of words with my bank. Oh well… you win some, you lose some.

Anyway… last night, we were trying to decide how long we wanted to stay in the places we’re visiting before the cruise, and how we wanted to travel to them. It didn’t take us long to decide to visit Bergen, which is a very beautiful city on Norway’s west coast that offers enchanting scenery, fresh seafood, and lots to do. However, from Oslo, it takes seven hours to drive there or take the train. We could also fly; that takes just an hour. But if we fly, we’ll miss the incredibly beautiful scenery on the way, and have to deal with everything that flying entails nowadays.

I thought maybe we’d drive and stop somewhere on the way, maybe do some exploration. Unfortunately, renting a car in Norway, especially for a one way trip with drop off in another city, is VERY expensive. Gas and food are also very expensive in Norway, plus there are tolls on the road we’d be using.

The route from Oslo to Bergen is also rather devoid of places to stay. There are a lot of apartments to rent, and a few hotels that are either in the middle of nowhere or have dodgy reviews. I wouldn’t mind renting an apartment, but I’d hate to do that for just an overnight. Most of the ones I found were pretty bare bones, too. I did manage to find several hotels that allowed me to book now and pay later, and can be canceled up to the day of arrival. Clarion Hotels for the win! They even have a hotel out in the middle of nowhere that I considered booking, but then I thought again.

Finally, I think we decided we’d just take the train… which means we now have to decide if we want to leave at 8:23AM or 12:05PM. The later trip is notably less expensive, but slower. I suspect we’ll go for the morning time, so we can get to Bergen in the afternoon. If we wanted to spend another night in Oslo, we could get a really (relatively) cheap train fare… but then we’d be paying for another night in Oslo, which is legitimately a nice city, but one we’ve already seen. It’s not a super pretty town, either, although I do remember enjoying the day cruise we took on the Oslo Fjord in 2009.

So, once I found a hotel that offers parking, in case we drive after all, I went to book plane tickets. A flight from Bergen to Stockholm takes one hour and twenty minutes. I found seats on SAS– Scandinavian Airlines (although when I hear SAS, it reminds me of a cursed statistics program I had to use in grad school). I tried to book with my PenFed card, but for some reason, PenFed refuses to send texts with codes to overseas phone numbers, nor will they send the confirmation codes to emails. So that means I can’t authorize charges through their stupid two factor authentication program.

I went to USAA, which did successfully send me a text. But, even though I entered all of my information, gave them a fingerprint, and tried to authorize the charge, they still declined it and blocked my card. At 10PM, I was calling USAA– for the second time in a week– to ask them to unblock my card and authorize payment, so we can get from Bergen to Stockholm. The lady I spoke to last night was very nice and professional, unlike the other person I talked to a few days ago, who was quite rude to me.

We finally got the plane tickets sorted, and now we just have to confirm where we’ll be sleeping for our night in Stockholm. I had wanted to stay longer in Stockholm, since we never really got to see the city when we were there in 2009, but that would have meant arranging for another night there. Our night in Stockholm is already included in our cruise fare, so adding another would mean going to another hotel or paying more to Regent. I think we’d prefer another night in Bergen, anyway.

All that’s left to do now is buy train tickets, or arrange for a car to get us from Oslo to Bergen. I’ve even mostly paid off the credit card companies. I paid off the deposit and Lufthansa tickets last week, which I booked through PenFed. Then, this morning, I accidentally paid USAA for the rest of the cruise fare. I had only meant to send them $1000 today, but ended up requesting to pay the whole bill. Luckily, there was enough money to pay for it. Thanks again to Bill’s decision to pay taxes all year and get a refund, we had the cash available. Edited to add: I just got us our train tickets… good thing, too, because the seats were already sold out, and I had to get us a compartment for six people instead. That was another $500. At least it’s changeable and refundable.

Living in Germany sure has been good for us…

But dammit… the fares went down 2,000 euros this week!!!!

Oh well. We’re sure to have a great time. I look forward to blogging about it, and experiencing new places on a different cruise line. I’ll be surprised if I’ll want to give up small ship cruising for Regent permanently, but we’ll see. I suspect that if I ever spot a hot deal like the one they’re offering right now for our cruise, I’ll want to jump on it. Especially if we have the money!

If you’re curious about what we’re in for on our journey from Oslo to Bergen, have a look at a couple of videos… I think it will be unforgettable.

Let’s hope for sunny weather!
Looks good!

And yes, I know we don’t have to spend this much money to have a good time… but I have definitely done my fair share of cheap traveling. It’s nice to have an upgraded experience, and I’m grateful we have the opportunity. We never thought the day would come.

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Hebridean Island Cruises

Cruising Scotland for the fifth time! Hebridean Island Cruises does it again!

We’ve got spirit! Yes, we do!

It’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago, I was still aboard Hebridean Princess enjoying the last precious moments of coddling that keeps Bill and me coming back to Scotland again and again. We just spent eight glorious nights aboard the tiny luxury ship. The cruise, which originated in Invergordon and ended in Oban, was fully booked. That means there were 47 other passengers sharing this experience with Bill and me. I like to think of the Princess as the anti-mega ship. I’ve got no use for huge floating cities so popular these days. Give me a little vessel with lots of good food, flowing champagne, superb service, beautiful scenery, and like-minded guests.

Bill and I decided to book our cruise in April of this year. Because Hebridean Princess is an all inclusive luxury experience with matching luxury prices, we usually plan much further in advance. Because we booked just four months out, I got us a “cheap” room on the Hebridean deck, in the “bowels” of the ship. Each stateroom on Hebridean Princess is named after a special place in Scotland. I knew what to expect, since we always book the “cheap” rooms. To date, we’ve stayed in all three of the double sized “cheap” rooms: Loch Torridon (three cruises), Loch Crinan (one cruise), and Loch Harport (one cruise). I’m hoping to upgrade us to a higher deck the next time we cruise, although there is absolutely nothing wrong with the “cheap” rooms. They are very comfortable, even though they lack windows or portholes and require a steep climb up and down stairs. At age 47, I was still among the youngest of the passengers and, at least for now, my knees can take the abuse.

We began our trip on the second of August, flying from Frankfurt to Edinburgh. This was the first time I’ve ever managed to score direct flights to and from Scotland. Although Frankfurt is an incredibly obnoxious airport, living close to it does have its advantages. We could have flown to Inverness, but that would have required a layover. I had never been to Inverness before this trip, but I’d heard it wasn’t all that exciting. I also wanted a “do-over” of Edinburgh, which we last visited in 2012 after our first Hebridean experience– two back to back five night cruises in November, during which we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.

We loved Edinburgh when we visited for four nights in 2012, but our time there was shrouded in sadness. On our last night of the second cruise, we learned that our sweet dog, MacGregor, had collapsed at the dog hotel. Unbeknownst to us, he had a highly aggressive malignant tumor invading his spinal column. Before we left for Scotland, we had been led to believe that he’d had a much less serious condition. We’d had him on prednisone and he was being weaned off, when the tumor suddenly got worse.

The hotel staff took MacGregor to see his vet, who suspected he had a malignant tumor and had recommended euthanasia. We were thousands of miles away and there was nothing we could do but worry. However, the situation was not so dire that we needed to rush back to North Carolina, where we lived at the time. The vet loaded MacGregor up with painkillers and the dog hotel staff took excellent care of him. We finished our vacation, came home, and took MacGregor to North Carolina State University, where he eventually had a MRI that confirmed the vet’s diagnosis. We said goodbye to him on December 18, 2012.

Anyway, because our first visit to Edinburgh was marred by personal tragedy, we decided to go back this year. I’ll go more into detail in the next post, but let me just comment that next time, I’m going to check the calendar more closely before I decide on pre-cruise cities. Edinburgh was teeming with people who had come to to the annual Fringe Festival. It started on the day of our arrival and made the city even crazier than usual! I’m surprised we managed to get a hotel room! I’m glad we were able to experience the festival, but I think I prefer Edinburgh in November, when the city is not so crowded.

We took ScotRail to Inverness on August 4th and spent one night at the lovely Rocpool Reserve Hotel. In retrospect, I wish we’d come directly to Inverness. It’s a very charming city and I would have liked to have spent more time there. If we ever do another cruise out of Invergordon, we’ll suffer the layover required to get to Inverness. It deserves to be explored.

Our cruise began on August fifth and ended yesterday morning. As I finish this post, I realize that it’s still been less than 24 hours! How am I going to get used to life without my daily dose of champagne? Writing helps me prolong the joy. I hope you’ll join me as I digest our latest spectacular trip to Scotland!

Part two

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Yet another Scottish whisky cruise…

Well, we finally did it.  We booked another proper vacation, the first one we’ve had since September 2017, when we visited Scotland the last time and cruised to Northern Ireland.  A lot has happened since that cruise occurred, although there have been a few things that are still the same.  For instance, we now live in Wiesbaden instead of Unterjettingen… but lingering issues that actually occurred right around the last time we were on the Hebridean Princess conspire to keep us connected to our old stomping grounds near Stuttgart.  That, and we kept our dentist down there.

Anyway, lately I’ve been feeling a bit crabby about life in general.  I will be the first to admit that everything that troubles me is, for the most part, a first world problem.  I still need a break sometimes.  So does Bill.  So in the past few days, we decided to book our vacation for 2019.  We gave some thought to going on a French barge cruise, which I’ve been wanting to do for ages.  But when we called about the specific one we were considering, we were told it was fully booked for when Bill had time off work.

I also want to go to Armenia… but Armenia in August is not the best idea, even though it looks like they are now embracing air conditioning.  It’s really hot there in the summer.  I’d rather go in late September or October.

So that led us to Hebridean Island Cruises again.  Although I’ve had a mishap every time we’ve been on that ship, it still remains my favorite of the ships I’ve tried so far.  It costs a mint to get onboard, but once you’ve paid, you’ve paid.  On four previous cruises, we’ve never had a bill at the end of the voyage.  And the voyage we booked is one that will take us to parts of Scotland we haven’t yet seen.  It will start in Inverness, when the coach picks us up and takes us to Invergordon.  Then, we’ll sail to Wick, through the Orkney Islands, and over the top of Scotland back to Oban eight nights later.

The cruise departs on August 5, 2019, so we had to pay for the whole thing yesterday.  It was a bit of an oucher… but they gave us a good discount.  We’ll be visiting eight distilleries.  Hopefully, this time, I won’t get norovirus like I did at the end of our first Scottish whisky cruise in 2016 (which, by the way, I think I picked up at a tasting off the ship).

This may be our last Scottish cruise for awhile, because I am really wanting to see some other parts of Europe.  We’ve been here for several years now, but the first time we lived in Germany, we made an effort to see more of the continent.  This time, we’ve stayed pretty close to Germany, with trips to Italy, France, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Belgium, Ireland, Scotland, and the Netherlands.  I’d like to visit Spain, Scandinavia, and more parts of eastern Europe.  I’ve been trying to do a real trip to Croatia for years.

Here’s a video about this awesome ship that started out as a car ferry in 1964, and for the past 30 years, has been the ultimate luxury experience.  Queen Elizabeth II and her family have sailed twice!

Prayers that this time, nothing bad will happen… I will come home healthy.  Bill will be healthy.  The dogs will be healthy.  And we won’t be too broke or inconvenienced!

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SeaDream Yacht Club drops a bombshell…

Recently, SeaDream Yacht Club has been teasing its prior passengers with promises of “big news”.  Even though our last SeaDream cruise was in May 2013, I still really like this cruise line and would love to sail them again… soon, if possible.  Although I haven’t signed up for an upcoming cruise yet, I did sign up to get the big news.  Just a little while ago, I got the email with the latest scoop.

Ever since its inception, SeaDream has had two ships– SeaDream I and SeaDream II.  They are identical, except SeaDream I was built in 1984 and SeaDream II was built in 1985.  They used to be called Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II.  For years, there have been rumors swirling about a new vessel.  In fact, in 2013, during our last cruise, the cruise director had dinner with Bill and me and told us about plans for a new ship.  But then, that guy ended up quitting his job just a few weeks later.

Well, as of today, we know SeaDream will have a new vessel called Innovation which will allow SeaDream to add over 200 ports around the world, to include polar regions.  The new ship will have three marinas, a seaplane, and its own helicopter.  The staterooms will also all have balconies.  At this point, they’re saying the ship will be ready by September 2021.  I hope to do another SeaDream cruise before then, if time and finances allow.

Since Bill left the Army and has been establishing his new career as a contractor, the opportunity to take a SeaDream cruise has eluded us.  We have been fortunate enough to take Hebridean cruises in Scotland and, in fact, I actually prefer Hebridean in some ways.  However, SeaDream was our introduction to small ship cruising and they go to places Hebridean can’t.  SeaDream has things Hebridean Princess doesn’t have, like a piano bar and a marina… and a pool and Thai spa.  Plus, the clientele is a bit different, although not necessarily better or worse.  I’ve met a few celebrities on SeaDream, while on Hebridean, it’s more likely to meet very wealthy British people.

Computerized screenshot of the new vessel.

So this is exciting news, although I highly doubt any voyages on the Innovation will be in our price range.  SeaDream cruises are very expensive and they annoyingly add port taxes after the already high fare.  I like the way Hebridean does things.  You pay a huge fare, but it’s truly all inclusive.  Once you pay, you don’t have to worry about anything else, except whatever you might buy in their tiny gift shop.

So far, we’ve done three SeaDream cruises.  Our first, in April 2010, was San Juan, Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, USVI.  It was just five nights and cheap, especially for SeaDream.  I think I booked a guaranty fare for $1599 a person.  The second was in November 2011, St. John, Antigua to Bridgetown, Barbados.  And the third was in May 2013, Rome, Italy to Athens, Greece, with a passage through the Corinth Canal.

I had my eye on a voyage happening this summer, but Bill didn’t want me to book it.  Now I realize I probably should have gone ahead and booked it.  Especially now… because I really, REALLY need a real vacation.  

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for Innovation’s fares.  I might just laugh at them for awhile as I dream.

One of my favorite SeaDream memories.
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My beloved SeaDream I caught on fire a few weeks ago…

And now I’m not so sure I’ll ever get on the ship again.

The fire happened at about 2:00am on September 1st in Italy, off the coast of Calabria in the southern part of the country.  It was in the engine room.  105 passengers and 61 crew members were aboard and they weren’t evacuated until the afternoon of the 2nd, perhaps twelve hours after the fire was extinguished.

I’ve been on SeaDream I three times.  The first time was in the Caribbean in April 2010 and it was my very first taste of luxury cruising.  I fell in love hard and fast, even though I got pretty seasick.  The second time was in the southern Caribbean in November 2011, in honor of our 9th wedding anniversary.  That cruise was also magical, though maybe not quite as much so as the first had been.  The third time was in Greece and Italy in 2013.  I would say that was the best of the three SeaDream cruises we’ve done, but we were not moved to pre-book another one.  With that, we lost momentum and haven’t yet been back, though I have been shopping for possibilities.  I haven’t been on SeaDream II yet, but it’s pretty much an identical ship.

We took a Hebridean cruise this year because we live in Germany and it’s somewhat convenient to get to Scotland from here.  They had a whisky themed cruise that I found easy to convince Bill to book.  They also gave us discounts that amounted to 15% off the fare.  We’re doing another Hebridean cruise next year, because it’s going to Northern Ireland, a place neither of us has ever been and, again, it was something we could afford.  Hopefully, we will still be in Germany at the time it sails, just under a year from now.

In any case, SeaDream I’s fire has really messed things up for a number of people.  Because SeaDream I is currently out of commission, there’s only one ship operating.  A decision was made to replace one of SeaDream II’s upcoming cruises with an itinerary from SeaDream I’s.  That means that people who were booked on SeaDream II are being bumped, mainly due to a large charter.

Now… while I totally understand why SeaDream made the decision it did– purely for business– I can’t help but think I’d be pretty devastated if I were planning to be on SeaDream II’s cruise and got bumped at the last minute.  This situation is one reason why I ALWAYS get travel insurance when I book a cruise.  It generally costs at least five figures to sail on SeaDream.  A last minute change like this, even though it’s due to a fire, can really result in the loss of a lot of money.  It’s also kind of heartbreaking.  I always look forward to my cruises with SeaDream and I would be crushed by a sudden cancellation.

As for the hapless passengers who were on the ship when it caught fire, it sounds like they went through quite a scary ordeal.  They were on the disabled ship for about twelve hours before they were removed.  Given that it was an emergency situation, I doubt the prosecco was flowing… but who knows?

I will admit that another reason why I hesitate to book SeaDream again is that I’ve been overdosing on Below Deck, Bravo TV’s show about crews on luxury charter yachts.  It’s kind of spoiled the mystique for me, because it’s very clear that what they do is all about getting a big tip.  SeaDream has a loosely enforced no tipping policy, but Hebridean’s policy is very strict.  They explain that tipping can lead to embarrassment, so it’s not allowed at all.  I have no problem with tipping, as long as I know what to expect ahead of time and can be prepared.  On SeaDream, it’s not expected or required, but people do it anyway– or they contribute to the “crew fund”.  I prefer to just pay a lot ahead of time and not have to worry about it.

So… anyway, I think if we try a different cruise line, it may be time to give Seabourn a chance.  Or maybe we’ll try Azamara, where apparently a lot of former SeaDream crew members have gone.  I have a friend I met on a SeaDream cruise who has defected to Azamara.  On the other hand, both of those options mean bigger crowds on the ship.  But they also mean nicer staterooms and, perhaps, more to do than drinking and sunbathing!  We also really want to try barge cruising or maybe even a river cruise, although river cruises might be a little too geriatric for us at this point.

We’ll see.  There are so many great cruises to choose from, we really can’t go wrong…

Captured on SeaDream I…  Amalfi coast of Italy.

And an enchanting shot off of Hebridean…  leaving Tarbert Castle.

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Part 2… Arrival in Glasgow and meeting up with the Princess!

Bill and I flew out of Stuttgart at about noon on March 14th.  We dropped off our dogs, Zane and Arran, with Max at Dog On Holiday, and had pleasant flights from Stuttgart to Amsterdam to Glasgow.  I was feeling hopeful when I saw the sun out in Glasgow.  On our first trip to Scotland, we were greeted by dismal weather.  It was dark and stormy that November day.  This time, we had almost balmy temperatures and the sun was shining.  I had needed a heavy coat in Stuttgart, but could walk around with no jacket on in Glasgow.

I cracked a smile when I saw the guy directing the taxi stand. ¬†He was wearing a pair of tartan trousers. ¬†I am a sucker for tartans, even though I have yet to invest in a stole of my own. ¬†I would love to see Bill in a kilt, especially if he wears it properly… but he’s mostly Irish, so he balks at the idea of having one made. ¬†One of these days, I’ll get him to pull the trigger. ¬†Hopefully, it won’t be aimed at my head.

We reached the Carlton George Hotel by mid afternoon, deposited our bags, and enjoyed some of the free booze in the mini bar. ¬†Through OpenTable, I had made us reservations at a restaurant called Alston Bar & Beef. ¬†Bill and I both enjoy steaks and this particular restaurant also specializes in gins. ¬†I thought maybe we’d have a couple of gin cocktails, but Bill decided he preferred wine. ¬†We enjoyed a lovely dinner there, with a round of cocktails and a bottle of wine. ¬†We also had dessert… the first of many over the following week.

Bill was fretting a bit because he’d been dieting to get into his dress blues. ¬†Our cruise had two gala nights that involved formal wear. ¬†Bill retired in 2014, so PT tests are now a thing of the past. ¬†He had put on a little weight, but was able to squeeze into the uniform. ¬†I could tell he was working hard not to eat too much steak on our first night in Scotland.

I won’t say too much about the Carlton George in this particular post because I intend to write a review. ¬†For now, I will say we enjoyed a very comfortable evening there. ¬†The hotel is located very close to the main shopping drag in Glasgow and is near Glasgow Central Train Station. ¬†We were due to meet representatives from the ship and our fellow passengers at 3:15pm on March 15th.

Breakfast was not included in our rate, so we decided to eat out on the town. ¬†Again, through OpenTable, I found a very cool bar close to the hotel called the 158 Cafe Bar at Hutcheson’s. ¬†I made us reservations for 9:00am and we both enjoyed a lovely breakfast on our first morning in Scotland. ¬†It would be the first of many sumptuous meals we enjoyed this week.

A yummy mocha…
 
Eggs Benedict…
Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon…

Once checkout time came around, we hauled our bags to the train station and sat in a bar, where we had a light lunch and enjoyed lots of beer. ¬†It so happened the bar we were enjoying was slated to close that Sunday. ¬†Consequently, they didn’t have a very good selection of suds. ¬†I didn’t mind too much, though, because the location was perfect for watching the train station. ¬†It wasn’t long before we saw the folks from the Hebridean show up, ready to welcome a new round of passengers onboard.

An excellent vantage point for spotting people from the ship.

Hebridean Princess hires guides for its cruises. ¬†They usually change each week and have special interests in the different cruise themes. ¬†The week we were on the ship, our guide was John Harbour. ¬†He was very easy to spot. ¬†Every day, he wore a kilt with a matching tie and v neck sweater. ¬†He’s very tall and distinguished and a proud Scotsman. ¬†When we showed up with our passel of bags, he commented that we hadn’t packed light. ¬†I explained that Bill had brought his uniform. ¬†Then John told us that he had served in the Royal Navy for over thirty years. ¬†He now has his own tour guide business and has been on Princess five times. ¬†Prior to our whisky trip, John had been visiting India. ¬†I knew he and Bill would have plenty to talk about during our trip.

When all of the passengers who were planning to be collected at the train station had arrived, John and the bartender, Egon from the Czech Republic, loaded us into the bus and we headed to the airport to pick up more people.  Thanks to all the beer I drank at the bar in the train station, I had a strong urge to answer the call of nature.  Fortunately, the bus had a toilet.  It also had seatbelts, with John incessantly reminded us to use every time we got on the bus!

We arrived at the Greenock pier by about five o’clock. ¬†After a quick security check, we were each piped aboard the Hebridean Princess. ¬†A young kilted lad stood outside the terminal with his pipes and played for everyone as they made their way to the ship. ¬†I managed to get a very quick film of him playing.

The woman who ended up being our waitress showed us to Loch Crinan, our stateroom on the Hebridean deck.  The Hebridean deck is where the cheapest rooms are.  They have no windows and only a shower.  However, despite being the least expensive of the rooms on Hebridean Princess, they are still very comfortable.  A small bottle of whisky sat on the credenza over a stocked minibar that included water, soda, and fruit juice.  The bathroom was outfitted with Molton Brown toiletries and very thick, luxurious towels on a towel warmer.

The bed in Loch Crinan.
 
The bathroom.

We were asked to unpack our bags and set them outside so they could be stowed.  Then, we were welcome to make our way to the Tiree Lounge for welcome drinks and the muster drill.  The first night, dinner dress would be casual and we would learn about the many distilleries we would be visiting during our week on the Princess.  By the end of the week, we would know how whisky is made and the differences between the different whisky making regions around Scotland.

The very friendly and warm staff, mostly made up of Scots and folks from Latvia and Lithuania, made sure to make us feel at home.  After I made the steep climb back up to the Tiree Lounge, Egon the bartender handed me the first of many glasses of champagne.

Bill suits up for the safety drill.
Just as the sun was beginning to set…
 
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Ten things I learned in Scotland and England…

We’re home at last! ¬†And boy, did we have ourselves an eventful trip! ¬†Since we were gone for almost two weeks and a lot happened, I’m going to do something now that I usually do after I write up my vacations. ¬†I’m going to type a list of ten things I learned on our most recent trip to Scotland and England. ¬†I’m doing that now because I know some readers would prefer a quick and dirty recap and I have a feeling this trip report will consist of many moving parts.

Even though Bill and I have been to England and Scotland before– and I even lived in England at one time in my life– we always learn new things when we travel. ¬†And this trip taught us some truly surprising things. ¬†We spent the first week on a whisky cruise on Hebridean Princess in Scotland. ¬†The cruise focused on visits to whisky distilleries, though we also had a few non boozy excursions. ¬† Next, we went to England and caught Avenue Q in Stoke on Trent and visited my old stomping grounds near Mildenhall Air Force Base. ¬†We had an unforgettable trip that I’m itching to share with everyone. ¬†So here goes.

10. ¬†Apparently, Scotland has its own money. ¬†Yes, it’s true. ¬†Even though Scotland voted to remain a member of the United Kingdom, more than once, we ran into problems when we tried to use Scottish bills in England. ¬†In fact, this morning Bill tried to pay a fee at the Norwich airport with a Scottish note and it didn’t work! ¬†He quipped that he’d have to find a “non-Confederate” note. ¬†But, just so you know, Scottish money is legal tender in England. ¬†It’s just that they don’t seem to see it that much or something.

9. ¬†Driving on the left isn’t so hard. ¬†Bill was very nervous about trying to drive in the United Kingdom. ¬†As it turned out, it wasn’t bad at all. ¬†We had visions of Clark Griswold style driving mishaps when we first considered driving in the UK, but Bill did just fine! ¬†And now he has a new skill to brag about.

We did not have any encounters with Eric Idle in England.

 

8. ¬†There are many roundabouts in England… more than there are in Germany. ¬†Fortunately, none we encountered were as bad as this one.

I heard there’s a really scary one in Swindon, though…

 

7. ¬†My old house in England still looks the same as it did in 1978. ¬†We drove to Mildenhall Air Force Base, which is where my dad did his very last assignment as an Air Force lieutenant colonel. ¬†I was almost six years old when we left England, so it’s where my earliest memories come from. ¬†Very surprisingly, it was easy to find the housing area where I once lived and the house my family lived in. ¬†I sent a photo to my much older sisters who confirmed that I got it right.

6. ¬†But Mildenhall itself is very different… ¬†There are some things around the base that are the same, but I was very shocked by how many more people are there and how much housing there is. ¬†Also, I was surprised by the traffic! ¬†Forty years ago, Mildenhall was surrounded by small towns and lots of open space. ¬†Not so, now.

5. ¬†The story my mom told me about the street named after my dad was not bullshit… ¬†And I will write an updated post about that eventually to explain everything. ¬†Suffice to say, I found the street supposedly named after my dad and having seen it and noted where it is, I believe my mom’s tale was truthful.

4. ¬†It’s not a good idea to drink from the same cup, especially among strangers.¬† ¬†Even though I am supposedly “overeducated” with master’s degrees in social work and public health, sometimes I still do really stupid things. ¬†I did something dumb on this trip and ended up in deep doo doo. ¬†On a related note, toilets in the UK are kind of weird. ¬†It takes practice to be able to flush them effectively.

3. ¬†Scotland is as beautiful in March as it is in November… ¬†I managed to get some gorgeous photos on this trip. ¬†I also got lots of video, which I hope to turn into a new YouTube film. ¬†I will be busy for the next couple of weeks!

2. ¬†Haggis can be delicious! ¬†I don’t remember liking haggis that much the first time I tried it, but this last time, I thought it was very tasty. ¬†That was quite a surprise for me. ¬†I don’t know if it was because of the chefs on Hebridean Princess or just because of my Scottish ancestry. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†Having written that, I think haggis will be one of those dishes I sample only when I am in Scotland among people in kilts and surrounded by whisky.

1. ¬†A cruise on¬†Hebridean Princess is a marvelous, yet expensive way to see Scotland. ¬†Okay, I knew that already, but it was reaffirmed on this last trip, even though I got hit with a stomach bug on the last day. ¬†I will explain more about what happened as I blog… or, for those who have strong stomachs and high curiosity, there is a rather graphic account on my main blog. ¬†I promise to keep the account on this blog more or less PG rated.

Anchors Aweigh!

Now, on with my trip report!

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A little while ago, my dogs announced the mail…

And in the mail was a final bill for our upcoming Hebridean cruise.  In July, we paid a $1600 deposit.  We now have $4800 left to pay for our Spirit of Scotland cruise in mid March.

It’s funny, because we were just talking about the cruise last night. ¬†It sounds like it’s very expensive, but we actually got a really good deal. ¬†We took advantage of a sale being offered and, for some reason, it was cheaper to pay in pounds. ¬†Also, when you sail on Hebridean, absolutely EVERYTHING is included, unless you buy something from the gift shop. ¬†Once you pay your fare, that’s it. ¬†They don’t even ask you for a credit card when you board.

Booze is included. ¬†Excursions are included. ¬†Entry fees to museums and parks are included. ¬†There is no tipping at all. ¬†Transportation is also included. ¬†So yeah… it seems like a lot of money, but having sailed with them before, I know it’s worth it. ¬†And there are only 49 or 50 people sailing at a time.

Still… for many years, the idea of us doing a cruise this expensive was out of the question. ¬†It hurts to drop four figures on a vacation. ¬†And I still need dental implant surgery. ¬†So yeah… ¬†ouch.

But this is so worth the money… ¬†I can’t wait. ¬†Scotland is one of my favorite places in the world.

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We’re going back to Scotland… why we’re doing another Hebridean cruise

Hebridean Princess.

I already announced this on my main blog, which tends to get more readers than this one does.  It’s mainly because I am a bit rawer on my main blog than I am here, where I try to be somewhat genteel.   Today’s post will be somewhat less genteel.  I’m writing it because I want to convey why I think Hebridean may be the best cruise line ever.  If you can afford it, that is.

Bill and I took our first cruise(s) on Hebridean Princess back in November 2012.  It was in honor of our 10th wedding anniversary.  Originally, I had planned to take one five night cruise, but then it occurred to me that we could take a second five night cruise with little overlap of ports.  They were the last two cruises of Hebridean’s 2012 season and they were relatively inexpensive.  Each five night segment was priced at $1960 for the lowest priced cabins.  If we booked another cruise, we’d get a 5% discount.  I told Bill that if we left after the first cruise, we’d be traveling during the busy Thanksgiving rush.  Moreover, I wasn’t sure when we’d ever be back to Scotland.  That was before we ever knew we’d be back in Germany.

Fortunately, Bill agreed.  We made the booking and went off to Scotland in mid November 2012, not knowing that our sweet dog, MacGregor, was suffering from cancer.  Unbeknownst to us, he had a malignant tumor in his spinal column.  We had him on prednisone because he’d been having some problems with walking.  Our vet thought it was arthritis and/or disc disease.  She had instructed us to wean him off the drug, but that coincided with our trip.  We asked the people at the boarding facility to do it for us.

We had a wonderful trip to Scotland.  We went to Glasgow first, spent two nights there, then got on the very small vessel, which was originally a car ferry.  Hebridean Princess only handles 49 people at a time and is special enough that Queen Elizabeth II has chartered it twice.  Prior to cruising on Hebridean Princess, we had been on SeaDream I twice.  I thought that was an amazing experience.  I had no idea.  After ten nights on Hebridean, my mind was changed.  I still love SeaDream, but it is no longer #1 to me.

Anyway, our Scottish cruise was insanely awesome.  Once we boarded the ship, we were completely taken care of.  They didn’t even ask us for a credit card.  The service was just impeccable.

While we were cruising, MacGregor was having some problems.  The people at the North Carolina boarding facility where he was staying took very good care of him, but he really had trouble when he went off the prednisone.  One day, he just up and collapsed.  The folks at the kennel had to take him to our vet.  They were in constant communication with us, which was frustrating because there was nothing we could do from thousands of miles away other than worry.  At one point, the kennel manager sent us a letter from our vet advising that we put MacGregor out of his misery before we came home.  Naturally, that was devastating news to us, especially since we thought he had arthritis.

On the last night of our wonderful cruise, there was a gala event.  Bill and I were dressed to the nines, but I was very upset about the dog.  Bill had called the vet in North Carolina, who told us that MacGregor wasn’t on the edge of dying or anything, but he was in pain.  We told him to keep MacGregor comfortable as best he could.  We would get back after a few nights in Edinburgh and have him checked out.  We eventually took him to NC State, where an MRI was done.  That was when we found out he had cancer– up until that point, we had several vets arguing about what was wrong with MacGregor and we didn’t know who to believe.

The Hebridean staff was wonderful as we were dealing with all of this stuff.  But what was really awesome was what happened later on the last night on the ship.  It was the last night of their season.  After throwing up when I heard about MacGregor and before the haggis, I suddenly realized that Aunt Flow had come to visit me.  Somehow, I had come onboard completely unprepared.  I had remembered everything else we needed on our trip.  But I had forgotten to pack maxi pads.

Haggis!

I was very upset about everything that was going on: my dog ailing in North Carolina, vomiting, and now, an unexpected visit from Aunt Flow.  So Bill, being the wonderful guy he was, grabbed the assistant purser, a lovely Latvian lady named Valeria.  He said, “I need your help.”  She looked at him expectantly as he said, “Jenny just started.”

That was all he needed to say.

Valeria said, “I can’t promise I’ll get the best selection, but I’ll knock on your door…”

Ten minutes later, Valeria discreetly presented Bill with a bag of feminine hygiene products she’d collected from other staff members.  While I am sure this problem has come up before, I doubt it happens often.  On our first cruise, I was the youngest one onboard at age 40.  The second one included a couple of younger women, but for the most part, people on Princess tend to be silver haired and well past their childbearing years.  Valeria handled the situation like a champ.

I had enough supplies to get me through the night.  The next morning, the purser gave me a hug and wished us well.  I was later able to get the products I needed (and I have never made that mistake again).  We got back to North Carolina a few days later and took care of MacGregor until we sent him to the Rainbow Bridge on December 18, 2012, after we learned of what was really ailing him.

A month later, we adopted Arran.  We named him after one of the beautiful islands we visited in Scotland.  He remains a wonderful companion, though I just found out last week that he had a cancerous mast cell tumor (which was hopefully entirely removed).  I only hope when we get on Princess in March, he’ll still be just fine.

My MacGregor memorial…

Scotland video…  which is a little less emotional.

Anyway, with service like that, I knew we had to sail Hebridean Princess again, especially after mom raved about it last week.  I can hardly wait.  And I am hoping that this time, we have no sick dogs or menstrual catastrophes.

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